Luana Alves (MES/PSOL, Brazil): 'The biggest problem today? Workers and the poor aren’t seen as brothers and sisters'

First published at Posle.

In this interview, Luana Alves, a member of the Sao Paulo City Council from PSOL, gives her view of the political situation in Brazil, discusses the dangers of “class conciliation” and explains why more needs to be done to fight Putin’s propaganda

— You are a member of the Sao Paulo City Council. Could you describe your political trajectory?

— Yes, I am a member of the City Council. But for the last ten years, I have been a militant in PSOL (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade) and specifically in MES (Movimento Esquerda Socialista). I’ve known about PSOL since I was a teenager. Since its foundation, it has been an alternative for leftists, who identify as Black people, as women, as workers. We’ve run in the Brazilian elections for a couple of years and have gotten some air time on TV. It’s not much, but it is possible to hear ideas very different from what other political parties promote.

I am from a different city, Santos. It’s about an hour from Sao Paulo. When I was 19, I went to USP (University of São Paulo) to study Psychology. There I got to know some PSOL members. I’d been aware of their activities, especially in the student movements (in their struggle for student representation). So I became an activist, and mostly engaged with MES. We had an anticapitalist youth group called Juntos! that was linked to MES, to broaden the  movement, and to attract young people to become activists. I have been a part of a very important struggle, for myself and for others: affirmative actions in Brazilian universities. A lot of countries like the US, for example, that have a history of slavery and colonialism, have long introduced affirmative action in the universities to make sure Black people could enroll in the university. However, Brazil didn’t have such policies despite deeply rooted social and racial inequality.

I was in a Psychology class with 70 students, and only two of them were Black. And in a lot of courses like Engineering or Medicine there were no Black people at all. It looks as if these classes took place in Sweden. The struggle for affirmative action is very old, and PSOL has also been a part of it. I was also a member of Emancipa, another initiative related to MES. It concerns the very important issue of poor Brazilian youths’ access to university education. We have this entry exam called “Vestibular” that is very difficult for most of the poor youth because they don’t study that kind of content in public schools. So Emancipa is a free course for people who want to study the Vestibular to pass the entry exams. The classes take place on Saturday mornings and afternoons, and the educators, many of whom are PSOL militants, can teach Biology, Portuguese, etc. We have this kind of class in many neighborhoods, especially in the suburbs of Sao Paulo.

Emancipa understands itself not only as a movement that helps individuals improve their lives, but also as an anticapitalist movement that questions the system itself. We always tell our students at the beginning of the year that we oppose the Vestibular, and we don’t agree with this exam’s very existence. “We want to teach you all this curriculum so you can go to university. But, it is an unfair system at its root.”

When I graduated, I worked in SUS (Sistema Único de Saúde), the Brazilian healthcare system, as a psychologist for a couple of years in some of the poor neighborhoods. I worked at UBS (Unidade Básica de Saúde), a primary healthcare facility. It is a very important system in Brazil. They are totally free. People can go there and consult with doctors, psychologists, and nurses. There is one in each neighborhood. We should have a branch for every twenty thousand people. It is not usually like this, but we always fight to open new branches. And at the same time, I continued being a PSOL activist.

Then some comrades came up with this idea that I should run for the City Council. We’ve always nominated candidates, but not with a particular aim to win. It’s very hard for a small party like PSOL (at least we used to be a small party) to win in São Paulo. So, most of the time we run to voice our ideas or to make them heard rather than to win. But I agreed to run, and we won. It was a huge surprise. I won with thirty-seven thousand votes, which is a big number for Sao Paulo. Many of the other candidates were rich, and many of them were old politicians, so it was very hard.

There are a lot of women in PSOL, and Black women, in particular, are also leaders. Did this come about naturally or was there a specific PSOL policy that made it possible?

— There was a policy. We have always been aware of this problem in the Brazilian left of not understanding the role of racism in Brazilian capitalism. Here in Brazil, we didn’t exactly have what people usually call “workers’ oppression” like in European countries. There’s never been a big mass of workers. But we had a huge number of slaves. And these are two different things. So Latin American, and Brazilian capitalism, in particular, is very different. Black and poor people (not necessarily Black) don’t always see themselves as workers. They identify as the “poor” who survive with hardly any services and a bad labor market. We have an official minimum wage, but a lot of people (around thirty percent) earn below that line. So, there are literally two labor markets: formal and informal. The latter is made up mostly of Black people. The Brazilian Left, however, have always tended to overlook the central role of racism in the national capitalist system. PSOL shined light on this relationship as a practical and ideological movement. We have some theoretical basis in Leninism and Trotskyism, but we also need to ground ourselves in the history of Brazilian workers’ struggles, because a lot of them involved slaves before industrialisation. There is very little recognition of these events. For example, there were Quilombos, the slaves who fled the farms to the forests and founded whole new cities. 

The quilombos formed at the beginning of the colonization, and many of them exist up to the present. Quilombo dos Palmares resisted Dutch and Portuguese colonizers from 1604 to almost 1700. The quilombo’s biggest “city,” Mocambo do Macaco, had 6,000 people at its peak. For comparison, the capital of  Alagoas had around 8,000 people in 1650. To compare this to the present, it would be as if several kilometers from São Paulo, with its population of 10 million, there was a rebel city hidden in the mountains with 7-8 million people.

The history of anticapitalist struggle consists not only of labor strikes. There’s a very rich history of slaves rising up against their masters. And this needs also to be a part of our theoretical basis. So PSOL made this movement. That’s why a lot of people like me started to identify with the Left. PT, which is the main party of class conciliation right now, also has some Black militants but they aren’t majority. And they making a mistake by not giving Black militants enough space.

Anyway, I guess, they were important for my generation and my personal history. My parents are PT militants. My mother, a Black woman, was a part of PT throughout her youth. And Also my father, who isn’t Black but poor. A lot of Black folks like me are sons and daughters of older PT activists.

Can you tell us more about the relationship between PSOL and PT today? How does PSOL see Lula and his government?

— PSOL started to exist as an alternative to PT with a lot of older PT militants. So, it is a very different project. In the first Lula government in 2002, the radical branch of PT broke away. PSOL started to grow with the influx of young people who no longer identified with the PT. The PT was very different in the 1990s. I remember that from my childhood. They came from the streets, were more radical, and participated in strikes and youth struggles. They were not exactly for the pacification of society. This necessity of non-compliance persisted, and in some sense PSOL fulfilled this role. Bolsonarismo is a different situation, and we in PSOL understood the necessity of campaigning for Lula. We understood what came with this name. Lula had strong support from the Brazilian masses partly because many remember the social advances we had during the eight years of Lula’s government. These were the times of pacification of the streets, so it was no longer PT of the 1990s. But some social advancements were made at the same time. Some people were able to afford more things and became less poor. Not in a structural way. But at least they could access a lot of things they didn’t before (to buy a first car, to travel for the first time). However, all of these things evaporated during the crisis around 2012. So, we had to make a choice: to be independent or not.

When Lula got arrested, we were a part of the Free Lula campaign because his arrest was obviously political. When he was released, PT started to work on a campaign with Lula as a candidate. So, we thought that PSOL should have a candidate, especially for the first round. It was obvious that PSOL wouldn’t make it further, but we needed to have a left-wing candidate to say the things Lula would not say because they aren’t not part of PT’s platform (about the big reforms that needed to be done). There was a lot of Bolosanarist pressure to push all the debates to the right.

Do you support Lula now?

— I think we have a shared goal in combating the right-wing. Bolsonaro lost the election. But he has not lost people’s hearts and minds. We are going to support the government and some of its progressive proposals. But there are some we won’t not support. Like this new fiscal rule “Arcabouço Fiscal.” Michel Temer, who was president of Brazil for two years after Rousseff, introduced this terrible economic law. It is like a rule for investments in education, healthcare, and housing. There was a rule that Brazil could not invest in social programs if there was no GDP growth. It is a neoliberal rule to make peace with the market. Now [Fernando] Haddad, the minister of economy, an ex-mayor of Sao Paulo, has a similar proposition. It’s better, but deeply neoliberal. It is very problematic because it limits the expenses in the needed programs. During the first Lula government there was a real increase in social spending. In 2008 there was a 9% growth in social spending alone. A lot of social programs were introduced at that time — Bolsa Familia, Minha Casa Minha Vida, etc. Now if Brazil’s GDP grows 2%, it can only increase in social spending by 1.4%. Social spending is dependent on the growth rate, and that is very bad.

It does have a logic — a capitalist one. But PT used to not follow such logic. PT even during the first government when the PT defended left policies more despite promoting class conciliation. Now they are this very soft version of what they used to be. So PSOL can’t support it. It is a very dangerous move.

Right now, Bolsonaro is officially in the opposition. His strategy to win supporters has always been to say that he is for the people and against the establishment, against the system and rich guys. Despite Bolsonaro having been a deputy for twenty years, he was able to mislead people about this. So if there’s no left group that is truly anti-systemic, we are in trouble. Bolsonaro will be able to expand his influence over the Brazilian masses. If PSOL doesn’t stay independent, helping to associate the left with anti-systemic fights, the right-wing will take over.

Next year we have municipal elections. Every four years there are the elections for the president, governors, federal deputies, and state deputies. But in between those we have the city elections for mayors and Council members like me. They are extremely important because they can also predict the outcome of the Federal elections. Two years before Bolsonaro won, a lot of unknown right-wing mayors won the city elections. It was a very clear indication of what was coming. Right now, we have a possibility of Guilherme Boulos from PSOL winning the City Hall. It is very important for a party like PSOL, a socialist party, to win the largest city in Latin America. PT is now supporting PSOL on this. They are going to nominate a vice mayor and be part of the city government if Boulos wins. Boulos is now leading in the polls. We don’t know how long this is going to last. We always call it “enfrenta a machina,” facing the machine. It means that the people who are in power are going to do everything to keep it. The mayor in this building over there [the city hall is located near the city council] has a lot of money — the city’s coffers. He is going to make a big campaign, pour the money into improvements and renewing the neighborhoods. He can pay many people to participate in this campaign in formal and corrupt ways. So, we need to fight the machine. I think we have a chance. Not everything is determined. It would be great even if Boulos is 10 points ahead of him. Right now, he is almost 15 points ahead, but this doesn’t mean a lot because the current mayor will try to do a lot of last minute campaigning.

So now we have this relationship with PT, and the great challenge is to create a socialist program, not a class conciliation program for the city. We know we can’t make a revolution by having our mayor in office, but we can make some structural changes. For example, in healthcare. Right now healthcare is free, but the government doesn’t manage it anymore. Private companies do. They have the public money, and they are responsible for contracting the doctors and nurses. The idea behind it is that the state can’t make good management decisions, so we need the private sector to take care of this. They don’t charge people money because it is against the law. But they do take chunks of public money. They are far more expensive and bad than the direct public management of healthcare. So, we need to change this. PT doesn’t want to change this, but PSOL does.

You were talking about the threat of Bolsonaro. Do you think it’s serious for the upcoming elections? What’s his voting base?

— It is hard to describe [his base] because it doesn’t have a single profile. His supporters are not extremely rich, but also aren’t extremely poor. They are middle class and mostly white. We have polls that show that in Lula and Bolsonaro elections, a vast majority of women voted for Lula. Most Black people and the youth voted for Lula. Bolsonaro appeals to religious, in particular, evangelical believers.

Brazil is traditionally a Catholic country. The old PT used to be linked to parts of the Catholic Church here in Brazil. There were a lot of leftists in the Brazilian Catholic Church. Now the number of the new evangelicals is growing. They have big churches, kind of like companies of faith.

Their numbers have increased dramatically in recent years. And they have a lot of Bolsonaro supporters. We have to fight this because their rhetoric is very dangerous.

What are the main things on Bolsonaro’s agenda? What are the main features of Bolsonarismo?

— They are very conservative. They see themselves as the guys who are going to morally save Brazil. They are very LGBT-phobic. It is very similar to the American right wing. They see a lot of false threats. For example, they say that Brazilian teachers are teaching kids to be trans and gay. They appeal to many parents with these claims. They criminalize social movements like MST (Landless Workers’ Movement). MST does a lot of direct actions. They occupy farms (but never productive farms). Some Brazilian elites have a lot of land they use for speculation. So, these lands have been mere property. So it is part of MST politics to go to these places, fight with the guards, occupy those farms, and make them productive. They divide the land among many families and produce food.

In some parts of [the state of] São Paulo like Pontal do Paranapanema, which is a very rural, half the city is occupied by the MST. They generate wealth because they produce food and people have their land. So Bolsonaro’s agenda is to criminalize these groups, cast them as criminals, and put them in jail.

A lot of these old buildings in São Paulo are not really occupied. Do you see that one, with a lot of graffiti? It is occupied [a squat]. Poor artists who didn’t have homes took over these abandoned buildings. I have been to some exhibitions and theater performances there. A lot of spaces, like this one, are occupied, and this is part of political tradition here, it is a very strong thing. Bolsonaro’s aim is also to criminalize these urban movements.

What is your take on the strategy to fight Bolsonaro? You used the term “class conciliation” to describe PT’s politics, so you don’t like this strategy. You don’t think it works?

— I’ll give you an example. In Lula’s government, we had hybrid politics: part for the Brazilian people and part for big companies. We had an expansion of free public universities, but we also had a program called Prouni (The University for All Program), which is basically student debt. The government pays private universities for some courses. People can still enroll for free. But then these companies don’t have to pay taxes anymore. In reality, this model costs more than public free universities. In this model we have a lot of rich people from private education getting richer and richer. For some students the government pays for everything and some receive scholarships, so students have to pay a half. When these people graduate, they have large debts. It is not something we had in Brazil but now we are going to have it. And this is during the PT government — this is class conciliation. We could have another program for the expansion of free Brazilian public universities instead. They used to be public, but now we have this problem. These big private groups grew during the PT government. 

Now we have this composition with a couple of families owning a lot of land. We did not have agrarian reform which was a big cause for us. It was a big issue for PT. The PT has always defended an agrarian reform but they didn’t enact it. They made a lot of allies with agribusiness. This is also part of class conciliation. Right now, our strategy has to be more than supporting the government. We should come back to the neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces to do grassroots work like Emancipa does. We have these free courses. We want the students to go to universities. But regardless of whether they are going or not, we have conscious disputes with the students. A lot of politicization. Some of our students, especially the young men, begin their year defending Bolsonaro, but we talk to them. Many of them are still his supporters but some are not anymore. This is part of our work as well.

What is the attitude of the Brazilian left towards the war in Ukraine?

— A lot of the left in Brazil have a campist view of the war. I don’t know if they are really aware of what Russia is like right now. We have a media that only brings a part of everything. A lot of people, especially the guys from older organizations, think that Putin is Lenin. They think we are talking about a socialist regime. They think that Ukraine is full of Nazis. That’s what the left is saying and it’s probably based on Russian propaganda. I know that Nazis are a problem everywhere, and especially in Europe right now: Italy, Germany. Some people believe the Russian propaganda when it says that the Russians are fighting Nazis in Ukraine. People need more information, and we don’t have that many channels.

But even without much information, it is clear that even if there are some Nazis, it’s not a good reason to invade other countries. Otherwise, you should invade Italy, etc.

— Even in some places here in Brazil there are a lot of Nazis. I know that. Yeah, but people believe that. Lula is not really helping because of economic interests. There is the BRICS block, so geopolitically Lula doesn’t want to [spoil this alliance]. This is the official version of the left. We should tell people more about what Russia is like right now. What it is like for political organizations, leftist organizations, and LGBTQ+ people. Some LGBTQ+ people know about the situation in Russia but it is only within these groups. I think people should know more about the problems with the Russian government. Putin spreads this propaganda where he is like a guardian of Russian revolutionary history. I think right now the Brazilian left should be in solidarity with revolutionary groups in Russia and Ukraine. We need to have a more class based understanding of the situation. We are for the working people, and the workers did not create the borders. The government and people in power did. I think people have lost the sense of international solidarity. The biggest problem today is not seeing workers and poor people as brothers and sisters. I have much more in common with any Ukrainian or Russian woman than with any of those guys [the elites/the rich].

Putin portrays himself as a fighter against Western domination. Of course, it attracts some support globally. That is probably the reason why a significant part of the Brazilian left has some sympathy for Putin. How to challenge this opinion?

— Here in Latin America the left has always fought against Western domination because we don’t see ourselves as Westerners. We are like the West’s poor cousins. So we have sympathy for every anti-western fight in the world because we have always suffered from Western, and in particular US, domination in Brazil.

We understand that we can be a society that fights for a better world for the poor and racialized people and defends socialism. This is what we do. If people here that defend socialism see that Putin is not really creating an alternative to Western domination, these things would be clearer. A lot of people here think that he is making another proposition about more social and racial equality. People see him as a critic of the West. We need to know that Putin is not for a more equal and fair society. We are used to this association: being anti-western means being on the left, more pro-people.

Do you think that one of the things that the Brazilian left can relate to when it comes to Russia is police brutality and violence?

— Yeah, I think people can definitely make this association because here we suffer a lot from police brutality. Not many people know that Putin defends exactly this model. But even Lula does not defend people against police brutality. I think if people were more aware of police brutality, social inequality (because we see a lot of billionaires), gender issues, and the backlash against LGBTQ+ people, they would change their view on the situation in Russia. And also to talk more about what is going on in Ukraine like the death of civilians. This can move Brazilian sensibilities because we hate civilian deaths. In an almost conservative sense we deeply hate the deaths of children, women, civilians in general, even the right-wingers. We are very pro-life in this sense.

Do you think there can be an alternative to the geopolitical approach to the left solidarity? Left internationalism which could be built around some important issues like antiracism, ecosocialism, feminism, anticapitalism? How can this left internationalism be established and what needs to be done?

— It is a hard question because there were a lot of attempts to make international networks of anti-capitalist groups. MES, which I am a member of, is a part of the Fourth International, as an observer. It’s not so active right now but I believe that rather than creating something new, we should try to bring some movement to the Fourth International. I understand there are some movements that focus on specific things like women and racialized groups. But I think we should try to renew the Fourth International. It should be more active regarding the situation with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I think more people could be involved with it!